Perception is in the Eye of the Beholder

Anat Kedem, Basma Ibrahim DeVries, and Ruth Mastron assembled unusual (from the perspective of an outsider to the culture) yet typical (from a cultural insider's perspective) objects and photos from around the world and displayed a couple on each small group's work table. Participants acting as cultural detectives were given time to describe the objects and photos and share their observations and hypotheses before learning what the objects were and what the photos represented.

Two sources on the DIE model (describe, interpret, evaluate) are:

  • Wendt, Jon (1984).  "DIE: A way to improve communication." Communication Education, 33, p. 397-401. 
  • Ting-Toomey, Stella (1999).  Communicating across cultures.  New York: Guilford Press.

The activity grounded us in the "detective" analogy and helped us to see that culture is a lens through which we see the world (the magnifying glass). The activity reconfirmed how challenging it can be to correctly interpret the unfamiliar; showed us how our cultural assumptions affect what we see and how we see it; and helped us discover the need to reach conclusions that are logical IN CONTEXT (not necesssarily in OUR context). Sample objects and photos included:

  • A French gaveuse (used to force-feed ducks and geese to produce foie gras)
  • A Japanese mimikaki (ear pick or wooden earwax remover)
  • A Jewish mezzuzah (container nailed to a doorpost containing a parchment with words from The Torah)
  • A Kuwaiti rose water dispenser
  • A Mexican molinillo (hot chocolate stirrer)
  • Photo of the Hindu Holi festival (red paint looks like blood)
  • Photo of an Avon lady selling lotion to men in an African village
  • Photo of the Boston Pops orchestra members playing cards during a break (looks like the Rat Pack in a casino)

Detecting Intentions

Dianne Hofner Saphiere told the group some colorful stories about her experiences marketing Wild Turkey Bourbon in Tokyo. With the Cultural Detective Worksheet drawn on a flipchart, she walked the group through the model: describing what she and her Japanese sales staff and customers did, and encouraging us to connect that behavior to underlying positive intentions, beliefs and values. Finally, as a group we generated cultural bridge strategies that could have increased sales and strengthened relationships, and she told us what really happened (a typical happy and sad ending).

The activity modeled a funny, practical, interactive way to reflect on and learn from past experience. We encourage you to practice telling (and learning from) some of your favorite (or most regrettable) intercultural experiences.

The Mystery of the Virtual Team

Rita Wuebbeler showed us a video of a virtual team of five people from five continents. Participants divided into four groups and used the Cultural Detective Worksheet to analyze interaction between a team member and the team leader. Each group generated a list of best practices for leveraging differences in virtual teams. We compared ideas and viewed both what the video recommended as well as Cultural Detective best practices for multicultural teams.

The activity allowed us to practice our cultural detective skills by putting the pieces together: observing interaction, describing it, and linking it to underlying "cultural sense." It also enabled us to develop consensus on best practices in virtual, multicultural teams.

Decoding Miscommunication

Author pairs introduced proverbs and values wheels to assist small groups of participants to enhance their ability to understand and enhance intercultural interaction.

  • Emmanuel Ngomsi and Ruth Mastron's group analyzed the inherent pull in a global organization between the need for corporate consistency and the need to develop local talent and markets. They used an incident from Cultural Detective: Cameroon.
  • Anat Kedem's group spent most of their time thoroughly enjoying an exploration of Israeli values and approaches, using an incident from Cultural Detective: Israel.
  • Donna Stringer and Basma Ibrahim DeVries' group wrestled with the complexities (cultural, legal, societal, personality, gender) involved in the case of a Mexican worker in the USA who is disciplined for a sexual harassment complaint. They used an incident from the Cultural Detective: Mexico.
  • Rita Wuebbeler and Dianne Hofner Saphiere worked with a group who discovered that much can be learned when people behave counter-stereotypically. They unraveled clues from Cultural Detective: Japan case in which the Germans appear team-oriented and other-centered, while the Japanese seem individualistic and self-centered.